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|The Bloody Line of Lizen: Part 2|
June 11, 2017
Even though Ozai had already made it clear that he would not allow this to stand, an undaunted Lizen strutted up the corridor to the palace interior, leaving a baffled audience and his raging cousin behind. "Come on, Fire Sage," he said, rotating his head so he could just see Puren out of the corner of his eye. "There is plenty of work to be done around here and we'd better not waste any more time."
"Ummm..." Puren puttered. "Yes, of course. Right away, Prince Lizen."
"You come as well, Lord Chamberlain," Lizen added. "I might require some of your services."
Puren bowed before taking his leave. "I'm sorry for this mix up, Prince Ozai. But I'm sure that it is only temporary. Soon, whatever fishiness there is behind this will be exposed and then your time will come."
"Get out of my sight," Ozai said coolly.
"Dad's not going to stand for this," said Ozai and Ursa's little girl. "He's born to be ruler, unlike that loser Lizen."
"Azula!" Ursa became stern. "Don't talk this way about our family."
"I still don't understand," said Zuko. "Why didn't Uncle Iroh come back?"
"Because he can't leave Ba Sing Se at the moment," Ursa told Zuko, trying to remain reassuring with both her parental hands full.
"Or so Lizen says," said Ozai. "This is all wrong."
"It does feel wrong," Ursa agreed. "Iroh would never do this."
"He's had his eye on Ba Sing Se since childhood," said Ozai. "Even if soldiering is so much more important than ruling, though, there's no way he would ever ask Lizen to serve as regent on his behalf. That part is just absurd."
"No, I meant that he would never leave his family in a time of need," Ursa clarified. "Fire Lord Azulon is in a coma, so this is the only place Iroh would allow himself to be."
"Whatever," Ozai scoffed, as though he found his wife too dim to deal with for denying his brother's ambitions. "Alright kids, that's enough of a show for the two of you today. Go to your firebending training."
Princess Ursa lurked behind as others whisked by her and the chamber gradually emptied. "This doesn't make sense. This isn't Iroh at all."
When she finally finished her line, the sun was set and all was quiet. Wyla moved her worn legs toward the lit window of the building in the distance, which gradually became larger and closer.
The same Fire Nation soldier she asked for food from before answered the door. "You're late."
"Sorry sir," said Wyla, too relieved to focus on anything else.
"There's not much left to eat," he said, ushering her in. "If you want a proper meal, you'd better work faster tomorrow. Let's see, there's two portions over here. One is considerably larger than the other. Boss?"
"Hmm?" The grunt came from a lopsided wooden chair by the kitchen fire pit. It belonged to the yelling man, and his detestable breath mixed with an odor of cheap liquor.
"We have these two portions available now," the guard explained. "Should I give the girl the one with more or less ration on it?" The yeller grunted from his chair. "What was that?" The guard bent over to hear more clearly.
"More..." the yelling man said. Finally, he said something welcome to Wyla, though at this point she didn't care if she had more or less to eat, as long as she had something.
"The one with more? Fine. Here girl, sit down."
"No," the yelling man barked, sitting straight up.
"More... Work. More work."
"More work?" The guard turned back to Wyla and snatched the plate up. "Never mind. He says you must do more work before you can eat. Back to the fields."
"Now!" He proceeded to chase her from the building with his sword outstretched.
As the sky grew darker and darker, the air grew heavier and atmosphere quieter. More hours stretched by and Wyla was now the only one still outdoors. She had no way to tell the time for herself, but it had to be getting late. Eventually the light in the window of the mess hall was gone. Under normal circumstances, she would never dare it, but with her malnourished digestive system nibbling at her from the inside out, Wyla approached the mess hall once more. Her agonizing pangs meant she no longer worried about being whipped or yelled at.
From what she could tell, the place was completely deserted. The guard and the yelling man were nowhere in sight, and neither were any of the other citizens of Munn. Had they forgotten that she was still outside? No supervision. No sign of life. She now literally had all this space to herself. Wyla could even try running away. There was no one stopping her. She dreamed of seeking refuge in the Free Earth Kingdom and leaving all this behind. But it was no use. In her current state Wyla would never get far. Plus, she did not want her father and uncle to worry sick.
Most of the food was already eaten. There were stacks upon stacks of empty plates, none of which had anything left over. After searching the entire kitchen, Wyla came across a few plates with crumbs on them and dumped them all onto one leftover plate. She pushed the crumbs together and shoved one dusty, satisfying fistful into her mouth. The leftover batch of crumbs felt like life rushing back through her body. Luck was turning for her when on the next plate Wyla discovered a line of bread crust. Crust! Not a sand-like batch of wheat particles but an actual, solid, consumable piece of nourishment. Wyla sunk her teeth down on the discarded bread crust, savoring every bite and rubbing the staleness along each of her taste buds one at a time. She was aware of how pathetic she would appear right now, but there was no one else around and even if there were it would be the least of her worries.
With the long day now over, Wyla sat on the mess hall bench, folded her arms on the table, rested her head atop them and allowed her thoughts to wander into the night.
The Dragon of the West preoccupied himself with gathering up all his maps, scrolls and other supplies to take with him to the Earth Kingdom. His tea kettle was already packed; that had been the first item on the list. And then there was his own official seal – can never lose track of that, he reminded himself. Iroh's focus had been slipping as his mind was already at the Outer Wall of Ba Sing Se. Ever since he first laid eyes on it he knew that he was destined to return, and the memory of it was as clear in his head as the day he saw it.
Iroh's senses were roused. He had not expected a visitor at his quiet villa beside the palace. That had been the reason he had retreated here after the rally and the ensuing ball. "Come in," he said, turning to face the door. "Ursa, what a surprise."
The sister-in-law of the Dragon of the West had brought a basket with her, hanging loosely from the elbow of her left arm. "I heard that you and Lu Ten will be leaving the capital soon and I figured that I would come by and see you two off."
"Very thoughtful of you," Iroh said, smiling. "Is my brother with you?"
"I'm afraid not," Ursa said, breaking eye contact. "But I thought someone from our family should come."
"Well I'm sure that he has his reasons," said Iroh, not surprised. "Here, sit down. I'll pour some tea for us." Iroh dug through everything he had packed so far and pulled out his kettle from the bottom.
"Oh, I don't want to hold you up."
Iroh waved this objection away. "It's nothing. A few minutes away from packing won't make a difference, and I highly doubt that the ship will depart without me."
"Thank you," Ursa said as she took her seat. "I brought these ocean kumquats. I remember Lu Ten likes them." She pulled the fruit from her basket to show to her host. They were so fresh they could've been plucked right from Ember Island.
"I'm sure that he'll appreciate them. He's always had a love of good food ever since he was at my knee."
"Now he's going off to war," Ursa said solemnly. "They grow up so fast. Some day I'll turn around and Zuko will be fighting beside his cousin."
"The world may be a better place when Zuko gets to be Lu Ten's age. A lot will change after we take Ba Sing Se."
"You've always been so close with Lu Ten. Sometimes I wish that Ozai would be more like that with our kids." As she took the teacup Iroh handed out, Ursa shook her head. "Forgive me. I should not-"
"There's no need to apologize, Ursa. Zuko and Azula are lucky to have you with them. When I became a widower, I had to be both parents to Lu Ten. From then on, we were all that each other had."
"Sometimes our losses force us to change our ways, I guess."
"We can only make the best of what our circumstances become. Gems cannot be perfected without friction, nor humans perfected without trials."
Sipping her tea, something else occurred to Ursa beside Iroh's proverb. "How was it that your wife was able to see her family after you got together? After Ozai and I married, I was never allowed to see my parents again. They were very clear on that."
"And so the Fire Lord tried to tell me. But family was as important to her as it was to me. So I put my foot down."
Ursa raised an eyebrow, since she had never known Azulon to be one to give in. "And he relented?"
"Even the Fire Lord has to pick his battles sometimes. He could see how serious it was for me."
"I wish Ozai had put his foot down for me," said Ursa, still astonished. "Then again, it doesn't seem like something he would do. At least I was able to write letters to my parents until they died. Still, I wish that I could've been with them."
"I'm sorry to burden you with all this. I should go."
"No, don't," Iroh said, holding out his hand. "Ursa, I did not know your mother as long as you, but I do know she loved you until her dying breath."
Ursa's eyes widened. "So it is true," she said, finally getting the answer to a question she had been longing to ask. "You knew my parents."
"Indeed," Iroh confirmed with a nod. "Mostly your mother," he clarified. "I was with her when she died."
This revelation would not have been believable to Ursa if she had not heard it from Iroh's own lips. The heir to the throne would be as out of place in the backwater village of Hira'a as Azulon and Ozai had been when they came for her. It was several moments before she spoke again. "Part of me wants to be mad that you of all people could see my parents after I came to the capital while I could do nothing but write letters. That's what I thought when I first heard the rumors. Now, though, I don't think I can be mad."
"It's perfectly understandable if you are," Iroh said, almost regretfully.
"May I ask how you met my mother? She and my father weren't public figures by any means. Forgive me, but it doesn't seem like a likely thing."
The Dragon of the West surveyed his sister-in-law's eyes thoughtfully before answering. Ursa's inquisitiveness today reminded him of how bold and courageous Rina had been. It was a shame that Ursa had not fully understood her. "Our paths met when I was travelling, during my younger years. I'm afraid that I cannot tell you the whole story, but that meeting changed my life."
"Goodness." Ursa was taken aback. "Very well, I won't pry any more. But I'm glad that you speak of it that way."
"It changed the course of my life. She gave me a great gift, which I carry on me to this day. And when I am Fire Lord, Lu Ten will have it."
The sun had barely risen, but the general staff of the Fire Nation garrison at Munn was already busy. Jaya had risen early like a proper princess and toured the grounds with her officers in tow. Already well-aware that several among her subordinates resented her or underestimated her, Princess Jaya resolved to not give any the opportunity to question her authority.
"Review your troops, Colonel Sansi," she said, dispatching him to the barracks as they passed by. "I want a full report this afternoon."
"Yes, Princess Jaya," Sansi said with a departing bow.
"General Shinu has requested more ration for the Dragon of the West's forces at Ba Sing Se," Jaya told the rest of the staff. "We'd better double up our farm production if our expedition here is going to be a success." Truthfully, Jaya was looking forward to getting the rest of her work for the day over with so that she and the staff could focus on advancing the classified projects, which they were all eager to do.
"Understood," said the same balding, bearded man who had questioned her the other day. Jaya did not find a similar tone in him at this time.
But as they strode threw the mess hall to the stores, Jaya spotted something else which merited attention. "What the Realm of Koh? Girl? Girl!"
The long-haired adolescent blinked her eyes several times before lifting her head up to the royalty and high-ranking officers who had awoken her. "Huh. Hmmm..."
"What are you doing?"
"These are not your designated sleeping quarters," Jaya stated firmly. Unlike her father, Jaya never acquired the taste for punishing civilians, especially children. However, with her general staff present she had no choice. Clearly the girl was under the impression she could do whatever she wanted. "That's going to be twenty lashes for you." By the look of her sweaty black-green skirt she had not even bothered to change clothes from the day before – another act of defiance.
Just then the guards on duty and the rest of the former Munn citizens assigned to the area entered. Two younger men exchanged a wide-eyed glance and one of them approached Jaya. "Please, Your Highness. Is that really necessary? My niece was only..."
"Who do you think you are to address me?" Jaya rose her voice to the insolent Earth Kingdom peasant, so the whole of the room could hear. "Do you want to get lashed along with her?"
"Then shut your mouth," said Jaya. The balding officer curled his lip approvingly. "Foreman?"
"Y-yes, P-Princess Jaya?" Her underling stank, and was in the midst of regaining his senses when he grabbed his whip and bent his knees slightly.
"You're behind schedule," Jaya told him. "Make them work twice as hard today."
"Yes, Princess Jaya," the man replied timidly, before turning to face his workers just as Jaya and the officers were exiting the room. "Well, you lot heard her!" he yelled at the top of his lungs, cracking his whip so loud against the ground scores of Munn peasants jumped at once.
Jaya turned back one last time on her way out. "And no breakfast for you today, girl!"
- "San" from Sansi means three. It's become a running naming quirk of the author. The two colonels in who accompanied How, Sung and Quan Jing were Yina and Ersi. "Yi" means one and "er" means two.
For the collective works of the author, go here.